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Review: ‘Bacurau’ is a wild Brazilian export pitting Us against Them

UPDATED: Thu., April 23, 2020

Silveiro Pereira, Barbara Cohen and Udo Kier arrive at the premiere of the film “Bacurau” at the 72nd International Cannes Film Festival in France on May 15. (Arthur Mola / Invision/AP)
Silveiro Pereira, Barbara Cohen and Udo Kier arrive at the premiere of the film “Bacurau” at the 72nd International Cannes Film Festival in France on May 15. (Arthur Mola / Invision/AP)
By Michael Phillips Chicago Tribune

Last year’s Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize winner, “Bacurau,” is a provocative, bloody Brazilian genre mashup.

It’s set in Western Pernambuco, “a few years from now,” in a realm of pulp fiction suggesting a Portuguese-language “Mad Max.” The village of the title has been sealed off from the main roads. The nearby dam – crucial to everyone’s livelihood – is no longer providing water to the residents who are, in effect, on lockdown. (Does everything seem to be responding to COVID-19 these days?)

For a fascinating hour or so, “Bacurau” ushers us into this strange, forbidding yet vibrant part of a world gone to hell. We’re dropped into the movie, written and directed by Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles, just as Teresa (the superb Barbara Colen, whose close-ups certainly class up a dystopian environment) arrives for the funeral of her grandmother.

Teresa’s lover Acacio (Thomas Aquino) has been off executing enemies of the cause. He, too, returns to the rebellious outpost of a town, unofficially run by Teresa’s wise schoolteacher father (Wilson Rabelo), and by the boozy local doctor played by Sonia Braga, much to the ensemble’s benefit. What, and who, they’re up against takes up the film’s second half.

This is where Udo Kier comes in. As the head of a murderous cabal (Americans, mostly) on a grim human safari expedition with a license to kill, Kier – as he has for decades on screen – lends an air of cosmic strangeness to the story.

Even so, “Bacurau” settles for more familiar and increasingly gory plot developments in its second half. It’s more about dread than it is about suspense or surprise; the audience gets out pretty far ahead of the sympathetic characters dominating the film’s excellent first half.

It’s worth seeing anyway for lots of reasons. As political allegory, “Bacurau” replays centuries of colonialist ravagements for a scenario not unlike the one at work in “The Hunt.” This movie’s a lot stronger, though.

The filmmakers previously collaborated on, among others, the plaintive Braga-headlined character study “Aquarius.” This movie doesn’t signal the dawn of anything peaceful whatsoever – that is, unless you count dreams of a more equitable future with a few severed heads as down payment.

“Bacurau” is opening virtually at the Magic Lantern. Find a link at magiclanternonmain.com.

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